Unsettling Advent 2023, Day 4
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
The chamber is cold and bare. Michael is stretched out on a gurney, a clean white sheet pulled up to his chin. He looks neat, crisp, well cared for. The sheet does its work, hiding the tubes and needles that will end Michael’s life. There is not one other person present, not even a nurse or physician to deliver the life-ending drugs.
The tubes are run through a hole in the wall, and Michael is utterly alone in this chamber of death as he lies helpless — as the state proclaims its victory by senselessly murdering him as others watch through a glass window. Michael’s execution is a public drama and his is the lone presence in the room, waiting for the clock to strike the appointed time.
But in the long, horrifying legacy of state-sanctioned murder in the United States, a tiny pinprick of light has broken through. In 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that states must allow a spiritual advisor to be present in the chamber with the condemned person in those final moments — to be able to speak, even to touch, to pray, to bring Light into the darkest of places — in the chamber of death.
As I sat next to Michael and kept a reassuring hand firmly on his shoulder — as I spoke words of blessing and comfort and hope non-stop while the deadly potion was pumped into his veins — I did not at the moment have on my mind God incarnating in Jesus centuries ago in a stable. I was horrified, broken-hearted, desperate for any point of light in this chamber of deepest darkness. But even for me, the presence of Christ was vaguely discernible, then palpable, then firmly transformed into the peace that passes understanding.
Christ was present with Michael in the death chamber and was able to speak directly to him through me. I am still comforted only by this: Michael was not alone, was never alone. God finds myriad ways to incarnate in words, in touch, in silent but powerful assurances that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
As we enter the season of Advent, let’s consider the ways that the Light wants to use us — the ways that we must create openings for the Light, the places that we need to be present so that Light can use us to radiate its numinous, ineffable power to heal and renew.
Let us cry out and also respond to the call. Kindness will not be warmly invited into cold, dark places. Healing will not be offered a red carpet on which to royally process into sick and hurting places. Compassion will not be eagerly embraced and escorted into chambers of evil, hostility, and revenge. Let us make the paths smooth and the way straight for the Light of the world — the Light that does not chase away darkness but eliminates it with its overwhelming grace.
Rev. Melissa Bowers is an ordained pastor and hospice chaplain. She served as spiritual advisor for over 20 years to Michael Tisius, a condemned death row prisoner. He was executed on June 6 in front of an audience of onlookers in the Bonne Terre Prison in Missouri. His dedicated and compassionate legal team was present in the viewing chamber but was not allowed to touch or speak to him in the death chamber. In accordance with current law, only a spiritual adviser is allowed to be present.